In the midst of the understandable national focus on the governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey, it has been the establishment media outlets more than conservatives which have paid at least some attention to the Republican primary runoff in a special election for Congress in southern Alabama. Outlet after outlet forced the same template onto the runoff here: “Establishment” vs. “Tea Party,” with the Establishment supposedly represented by longtime local/state officeholder Bradley Byrne while the Tea Party supposedly was represented by “businessman” Dean Young. Byrne won a tight (and harshly negative, on both sides) campaign yesterday, 52–48, which the national media template is portraying as a rebuke to the Tea Party.
The template is bogus.
I live down here. I was a candidate in the race: With a foreshortened campaign period and no organization to start with (but with wonderful help from friends like Citizens United, Rick Santorum, Morton Blackwell, and Mark Levin, to name just a few), I finished a reasonably close fourth out of nine Republican candidates. I obviously know this terrain rather intimately.
First, to label Byrne as some sort of Establishment milquetoast is absurd. His whole family has been friends of mine, originally through church, for 15 years, plus I’ve covered his public career for just as long. He is a solid conservative. He was not just a go-along-with-the-flow Republican in the legislature and on the state school board; he was a conservative leader on issues across the board, a real fighter. And in private conversations, at supper clubs and in other settings, I never saw a single thing to indicate that his private views are different from his public record of conservatism. Because of that record, indeed, the local Tea Party had Byrne as a featured guest at several of their meetings. Indeed, before this race started, both Bradley and I were seen as staunch tea-party allies. (Indeed, I was their “go to” guy as MC for local candidate forums they sponsored, serving in that role probably seven or eight times in two years.) When I failed to make the runoff, I, a tea-party guy, endorsed Byrne, a tea-party guy — who then quickly secured the endorsement of the National Rifle Association as well. And no wonder: Byrne is very smart, politically sophisticated, well-spoken, and effective.
Nonetheless, it is true that most of the local tea-party leadership, honoring a pledge they had made to Dean Young when Young was already planning a run against incumbent Jo Bonner (before Bonner surprised everyone by suddenly stepping down midterm), got on board with Young’s campaign. But as the Guardian, almost unique among non-Alabama publications, rightly noted, none of the national tea-party groups endorsed Young, nor did the often like-minded Club for Growth or FreedomWorks. There was a reason for this: Nationally, tea-party groups tend to be more economically conservative than socially conservative (not that they are necessarily against social conservatism, but it’s not their focus). Young is just the opposite: First and foremost, and to a remarkable degree, Young is an extremely conservative Christian. It got to where I only part-jokingly would note that if asked at forums what to do about deficits, Young would say we “need to get back to our Godly principles”; if asked what to do about immigration, he would say we need to return to Godly principles — and if somebody had asked him how to win at Parcheesi, he would recommend a return to Godly principles there as well. Known for a plethora of particularly harsh statements against homosexuality, Young rarely smiled and rarely talked about economic issues at all. Young’s beliefs are sincere, and most conservatives (myself included) hold similar policy stances, even if with a different style and tone.
Down here, the Venn Diagram of tea partiers and social conservatives overlaps far more substantially than elsewhere. But it wasn’t necessarily the tea-party leadership that carried him; what carried him was the all-but-explicit endorsement from Alabama chief justice Roy Moore, the famous “Ten Commandments judge” for whom Young spent years raising money. After nearly a decade with a reputation sullied by being kicked off the Supreme Court for ethics violations, Moore in the past two years reestablished the retrospective halo of somebody supposedly martyred for the cause of the Ten Commandments, and won election back to his old job just last fall. Anyway, it was only after Moore wrote a letter of support (while claiming it wasn’t an “endorsement”) for Young that his campaign really took off. Moore featured in just about every Young commercial and every Young speech, and in two low-turnout elections his enthusiastic supporters, good citizens that they are, turned out en masse for Young.
As it was, the national Chamber of Commerce — “Establishment” personified — intervened strongly on Byrne’s behalf, as did a host of business PACs and incumbent congressmen connected to House leadership. But so did conservative firebrands such as Representative Mo Brooks, from northern Alabama, and Jason Chaffetz, from Utah. And so did the Ending Spending PAC, an outfit that had strongly supported tea-party heroes such as Senator Ted Cruz. In short, this wasn’t really an ideological battle, nor was it even a battle over who would push the most uncompromising tactics — Byrne often led filibusters in the state senate against the then-Democratic majority — but it was instead a battle about tone and qualifications. National tea-party groups stayed out precisely because they recognize Byrne as being at least as effective a potential ally, in practical terms, as Young might have been.
Dean Young is a forceful advocate for his beliefs, and is undoubtedly a conservative. The question is whether his near-perpetual scowl would have presented conservatism in a good light to a national audience. Good people came down on both sides of that question. But they did so entirely without regard to “Tea Party” status. If Byrne, as expected, wins the general election on December 17 against Democrat Burton LeFlore, conservatives should find themselves quite pleased with his service.